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Graphics Cards

Part 2: Building A Balanced Gaming PC
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If you have any hope of playing the latest games in their full glory (by which we mean max'ed out details) and at high native LCD resolutions, we can’t overstate how important it is to have a powerful graphics card in your system. For our purposes here, we chose three cards from ATI and three cards from Nvidia, covering (at the time) a snapshot of the available gaming solutions priced $100 and up.

Naturally, a series of this magnitude takes weeks to plan for and test for; since we began, ATI has launched its Radeon HD 5000-series DirectX 11 boards. Thus, data for those cards wasn't available for the previous segment, nor will it be in this one. However, we're hoping to incorporate them into Parts 3 and 4.

Nevertheless, it's fairly easy to draw some parallels to our choices here, since ATI essentially doubled the resources on its previous single-GPU flagship. When you see a Radeon HD 4870 X2, imagine a Radeon HD 5870 there. The Radeon HD 4890 will generally be faster than the Radeon HD 5770. And the Radeon HD 5750 often looks a lot like the older Radeon HD 4770, if not a bit faster when you apply anti-aliasing.

BFG GeForce GTX 295

Representing the flagship of Nvidia’s GTX 200-series is the BFG GeForce GTX 295. Unlike the original GTX 295s, built on two PCBs, this newer revision features two GT200b GPUs on a single PCB.

Sporting a  total of 1,792MB GDDR3 (896MB per GPU), two 448-bit memory interfaces, a 576 MHz core clock rate, a 1,242 MHz shader clock, and a 999 MHz memory clock, each GPU has the general specifications of Nvidia's GeForce GTX 260. However, the GPUs themselves boast a full 240 stream processing cores, like the GeForce GTX 285, GeForce GTX 280, and GeForce GTX 275. 

ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2

The flagship of ATI’s Radeon HD 4800-series is still the Radeon HD 4870 X2, a card consisting of two Radeon HD 4870 GPUs. Each processor has its own dedicated 1GB GDDR5 (2GB total) frame buffer. The individual GPU specs are identical to a single-chip Radeon HD 4870, including 800 stream processors, 40 texture units, 16 ROPs (Raster Operation Units), a 256-bit memory bus, 750 MHz GPU, and 900 MHz memory frequency.  

BFG GeForce GTX 285 OCFU

This BFG GeForce GTX 285 OCFU represents the most powerful single-GPU card available for our first round of testing.  Its features include 240 shader processors, a 712 MHz core clock rate, a 1,620 MHz shader clock rate, 1GB of GDDR3 memory running at 1,332 MHz (2,664 MHz effective), and a 512-bit memory interface. These are extremely high (albeit overclocked) clock rates right out of the box, backed by BFG’s lifetime warranty. 

For Part 1 and Part 2 testing, we down-clock this board to reference GeForce GTX 285 speeds of 648 MHz (core), 1,476 MHz (shader), and 1,242 MHz (memory).

ATI Radeon HD 4890

Representing ATI’s top single-GPU card from the 4800-series generation, the Radeon HD 4890 has the same vital GPU specifications listed above for the Radeon HD 4870 X2, like 1GB of GDDR5 memory, 800 shader processors, 40 texture units, 16 ROPs, and a 256-bit memory bus. However, the RV790 graphics processor made it possible for ATI to serve up higher clock rates (up to 850 MHz on the core and 975 MHz memory).

BFG GeForce GTX 260 OCX Max Core 55

The BFG GeForce GTX 260 OCX Max Core 55 combines 216 shader processors, 896MB of GDDR3 memory, BFG’s highest factory overclock on a GeForce GTX 260 of 655 MHz core, 1,404 shader, and 1,125 MHz on the memory clock (2,250 MHz effective). Of course, it's also covered by BFG’s lifetime warranty.

We again down-clock this board to reference speeds of 576 MHz core, 1,242 MHz shader, and 999 MHz memory frequencies for initial testing in Part 1 and 2.

HIS Radeon HD 4850 512MB

The HIS Radeon HD 4850 has the same 800 ALUs, 40 texture units, and 16 ROPs as its bigger brothers, but it also has a lower GPU clock of 625MHz and 512MB of GDDR3 running at 993 MHz (1,986 MHz effective). 

As a reminder: all testing for this first part was finished, but we couldn’t kick this series off prior to ATI’s Radeon HD 5800-series launch. To see how these new cards stack up to the ones used today, be sure to check out our launch reviews here and here.

Special thanks to ATI and Nvidia for arranging the graphics hardware needed to make this entire series possible.

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  • 10 Hide
    1898 , December 1, 2009 6:24 AM
    BlackDays:
    Please, if you want to criticise something make sure you've understood it (read in this case) thoroughly. Otherwise you'll look like an idiot.

    Anyway, this series is made out of win!
    Thank you.
Other Comments
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , December 1, 2009 5:43 AM
    What effect does having a motherboard that unlocks the 4th core on the X2 and X3 have? In power consumption and overall performance? I'm not asking a redo of all the data, just asking for speculation by someone more knowledgeable, if I can get it.
  • 1 Hide
    winner4455 , December 1, 2009 5:57 AM
    YAAAAAAAAAAAY part 2!
  • 10 Hide
    1898 , December 1, 2009 6:24 AM
    BlackDays:
    Please, if you want to criticise something make sure you've understood it (read in this case) thoroughly. Otherwise you'll look like an idiot.

    Anyway, this series is made out of win!
    Thank you.
  • 3 Hide
    knightmike , December 1, 2009 7:08 AM
    This article truly is revolutionary. I have been waiting for an article like this since I began building my own PCs ten years ago. This article coupled with your CPU and GPU hierarchy chart will go a long way towards eliminating CPU/GPU bottlenecks. This article truly is the first of its kind and I hope to see it at least twice a year if not four times a year. Thank you.
  • 8 Hide
    ibnsina , December 1, 2009 7:18 AM
    Great article, it's educational, looking forward to ATI’s 5000’ series comparisons.
  • -4 Hide
    knightmike , December 1, 2009 7:21 AM
    In your conclusion, you state that a $100 CPU does a far better job than a $100 GPU when it comes to maxing out a low resolution like 1280x1024. Can you elaborate?
  • 3 Hide
    amnotanoobie , December 1, 2009 7:47 AM
    Hooray! Now this is a good reference on the forums when people ask for bottlenecks
  • -6 Hide
    scrumworks , December 1, 2009 8:24 AM
    How can this take weeks to plan? Perhaps if one works 15mins a day.

    Good to see vanilla HD4890 puts up a serious fight for GTX 285. Not that it gets any credit for that.

    You should stop using Vista. It's dead already.
  • 0 Hide
    astrodudepsu , December 1, 2009 9:07 AM
    Good article. Will read parts 3&4.
  • 6 Hide
    sheol , December 1, 2009 9:24 AM
    So now comes the next point - why are nvidia's GPU-s consistently requiring a faster CPU to show what they can do, while Radeons perform very well even with a dual core?
    Best example of course is the GTX295 - are nvidia-s drivers really that lousy, or is there something else at play?
  • -3 Hide
    cypeq , December 1, 2009 11:54 AM
    howray at last :D 
  • 2 Hide
    KT_WASP , December 1, 2009 12:01 PM
    Good article. I was awaiting the part 2 showcasing AMD's line-up. I was starting to think you guys at Tom's forgot about it ;) 

    Overall a good article. But,I think these charts can be deceiving though to someone who is not well versed in PC gaming and the hardware involved.

    For example,I have a HD4850 paired with an aging system that incorporates an Athlon64x2 5200+ 2.6GHz Windsor(2x1MB L2 model), 2GB of DDR2 800 (5-5-5-15 timings) and using XP Home with the latest service pack.

    I have yet come across a game I cant play at acceptable frame rates. Granted, I'm not using an ultra-high resolution, but I do up the graphic settings to high/max. I play modern games, some of which are on these charts, and they all play just fine.

    By setting an arbitrary number of frame rates.. some at 40, and some at 45, as "acceptable" can be somewhat misleading. I think that if your gaming using the two of the lower resolutions represented in this article, then I think you'll be happy with one of the lower tiered CPUs and GPUs paired together. Those combination's will get you very played frame rates at the lower resolutions.

    If your going for the higher resolutions, then of course you would have to up the power of the system.. but, I contend that at the lower resolutions, the cheaper hardware will do just fine, and any more money spent is for benchmark numbers alone.

  • 4 Hide
    AZRAELCRUZ , December 1, 2009 12:54 PM

    Clearly the Phenom IIX3 720 is the Core 2 Duo annihilator because the advantage of its extra core...
  • 4 Hide
    Anonymous , December 1, 2009 12:58 PM
    I'm returning my cards just bought on black friday pny gtx 260 core 216 and pny gtx 275 and exchange them for radeons 4890 and 5850. I'm definitely not going to pay for a new ring around i7-920 to get real benefits.
  • 5 Hide
    superpowter77 , December 1, 2009 1:07 PM
    Interesting article, I'm still shock about nvidia video card limitations, I can't understand why green cards are so CPU dependable. Are those expensive GPU not suppose to offload graphic tasks from CPU's? Why we have to spend more on GPU than a CPU?. I'm building a new ring only to play crysis and farcry2 and will not be spending more than $300 for CPU/motherboard/memory. Now 4890 It's on my list as first choice($179 on sale now), will avoid gtx285 even if they sell it for $200.
  • -6 Hide
    verrul , December 1, 2009 1:48 PM
    look at the 5700 series really close really impressive cards starting to get some in stock paired with the 720 you really cant beat the price/performance combo. and the 5750 will nearly match a 4890 overclocked. under 300 with either card.
  • 1 Hide
    Kelavarus , December 1, 2009 2:05 PM
    I'm in agreement with KT_Wasp here. I've got a friend running a Core 2 Quad, one of the lower versions, not sure which but I think it's around 2.3 Ghz, and they've got a 4850, and they run all their games with the exception of Crysis at all high with no problems. I'm not sure what resolution they play at, but they've got a 1920x1080 screen, so it's definitely not 1024x768. But anyway, completely playable on games like Shattered Horizon and Dragon Age. I don't know what the actual framerates are, but it doesn't stutter at all with no dips and plays very smoothly.
  • 1 Hide
    dark_lord69 , December 1, 2009 2:07 PM
    I wish you did the 4870, cause the 4890 is expensive (Well, more than I want to pay). And I already knew the 4850 wasn't good enough for what I want to run/do.
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